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When opening a new place, restaurateurs and chefs usually strive to have a hook to help their place stand out among the noise. Think: putting a modern spin on classic Chinese cooking, bringing the Tokyo ramen-ya experience to life outside of Japan or even making a soup dumpling so large it takes a straw to slurp up its filling.
Günter Seeger doesn't play by those rules. When he opened his eponymous restaurant in the West Village this summer (which has already garnered a Michelin star), he wanted it to quietly express his philosophy of exquisite minimalism—a philosophy the chef has refined over nearly 25 years in the business.
Guests are greeted in a foyer decorated with art from Seeger's personal collection.
When Seeger was 27, he opened Hoheneck, his restaurant near the Black Forest in his home country of Germany. He later moved to Washington, D.C. and then on to Atlanta, where he made his name in the U.S., first cooking at the Ritz-Carlton and later at Seeger's, named Best New Restaurant by Esquire in 1998. He made the move to New York around the time of the recession, a rough patch for restaurants, particularly fine dining, and spent several years consulting in kitchens before opening a place of his own.
Now, sitting in the restaurant's small foyer, he explains, "We have a very simple philosophy. We take extreme care of where our products are coming from and then actually do as little to [them] as possible."
This sense of restraint pervades the kitchen, which is turning out dishes like petite potato dumplings with hazelnut butter and truffles, a small nod to Seeger's birthplace, and goat cheese served with a quince jus and bread from neighboring restaurant High Street on Hudson. His simple approach to ingredients matches particularly well with fish dishes like loup de mer, sea bass poached in white wine and a touch of Pernod, finished with shaved cucumber and garnished with a single dark red mustard green leaf (see the recipe). "Fish speaks to him," Leslie, the chef's wife and restaurant co-owner, says.
His execution plan for a dish is born once he is inspired, not based on testing a particular concept. "When you see a beautiful leaf of lettuce, there's nothing to try out. What does it need? A few drops of the best olive oil, a few drops of the best vinegar? . . . I'm coming from a purist idea that food needs to taste as it really is," he says.
This elegant restraint also translates into the pristine setup of the kitchen that's left open to the dining room, as if someone removed a wall that was there all along. White marble countertops are kept polished and simply adorned with saucepans. In one corner, a small pot of dry flowers offers one of the few spots of color. In the dining room, exposed brick walls are painted white and covered intermittently with paintings from Seeger's private collection, many by his late friend, Paul Chelko. The piece that most clearly announces itself is the chandelier hanging over the chef's table. Made by his grandfather, who was a blacksmith, the piece has traveled with Seeger from Germany to Atlanta and, now, to New York.
He is acutely aware that his philosophy leaves no place to hide from imperfection. "Every tiny mistake becomes very obvious, and you see that in paintings, in anything that's very minimalistic," he says.
Despite Seeger's clear intent, the restaurant is still finding its footing, a fact Seeger seems to embrace. "I think the restaurant has to go its course with its integrity," he says.
"I think to build a culture in a restaurant is the most important thing." But "that, of course, takes time; it doesn't happen like this."
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